pow-wow

Buffy Sainte-Marie got me thinking about pow-wows tonight.

Listen to this:

This is Buffy singing her great song “Starwalker.” I heard her and her band do it in a live outdoor concert this evening.

Now listen to this:

This is a Nakoda (Stoney) drum group singing at a pow-wow. Notice the resemblance?

That’s a sound from my childhood.

I don’t mean because of Buffy Sainte-Marie. Oh, my parents had one of her records, sure. But a recurring soundtrack of my youngest years was Stoney drum groups at pow-wows. I grew up on the Morley reserve, after all. As an outsider, an inside-outsider, a child of outside-insiders. But it was what was all around me.

I don’t know just how the word pow-wow tastes for you; probably it has some kind of Hollywood Indian kind of reference and may even seem vaguely racist, calling forth cartoon images of American Indians in feathered headdresses dancing in circles. It’s such a simple-sounding word, the first part sounding like the drum going “pow pow pow” and the second like the singers singing “wow wow wow.”

Here’s how it tastes for me, the real-life thing that the cartoons simplify. Pow-wows are a big thing on the Stoney reserve, as big as rodeos and often held in the same place. They’re special occasions and they take a lot of planning. When I was a small child in the 1970s, they were held in a large Quonset-hut-type building in the town of Morley, the same place the Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter community feasts would be held with their bannock and tea and canned cranberry sauce.

We drove up, gravel crunching and popping under our tires. Some local kids might be hanging around and playing outside, but most of them would be inside. You could hear it all well before you got to the doors. Drumming and singing and drumming and singing and drumming and singing. In between dances, the MC talking, making jokes and introductions, all electrically amplified, all in Stoney, so all incomprehensible to me.

You come in the door and here is how it is: the drum group in the centre, singing and drumming. It is a lot of sound. A lot. Nearly nightclub levels. The dancers going in a counterclockwise circle around them, taking up most of the floor space. Along the walls, people sitting, watching, talking. We make our way around. Every interaction with everyone begins with handshakes and “Âba wathtech!” (to my young Anglophone ears, “Umba wastitch!”). This gradual meet-and-greet with every next person takes the same time as elapsed between the fall of Adam and Eve and the flood of Noah, which is to say somewhat longer than a car trip to Calgary. All conversations are in Stoney. I understand nothing but my Stoney name (which to my young ears sounds like “Pobby dowscun”) and my brother’s (Thija), always said in the same friendly high-pitched drawn-out tone, the kind that communicates that they think we’re just the most adorable young things.

A few times, I have my pow-wow outfit, mine, my own, with feathers and beads and all of that. I can hardly wait to join the Chicken Dance, the one dance that all the little kids can join in. We dance like little kids: that is to say, we bounce around like little kids, in a circle. The rest of the time we watch the older dancers, the old kids and the adults, the best of them with serious regalia with lots of beads and feathers and dancing in truly impressive whirls, dips, dives, and leaps. Some dances are plenary and most people join in, not too vigorously. Others are competitive.

Once I have outgrown my outfit I do not dance, but I am always impressed – even if I don’t say so – by the best dancers. And then eventually as I get older still I do not join my parents when they say “We’re going to the pow-wow.” I watch my own cultural heritage: crappy TV. And I look things up in the encyclopedia for fun.

Pow-wow is not a Nakoda word. Actually, it comes from a Narragansett word for a priest or healer. I don’t know what the Nakoda word is, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t get their drumming and dancing from an east-coast tribe. But, then, all those feathers and beads are something of a modern invention; the materials available were different, less colourful, in earlier times. The beads and bright feathers became available and were latched onto as an obvious improvement, just as Italians latched onto the tomato, Irish onto the potato, Indians (from India) onto red peppers, all imports from across oceans within the past few centuries. The Stoneys always had tipis and dancing and drumming and community gatherings, of course, just as they always had smoked dried meat; when they had the chance to improve the celebrations with bright beads and feathers and electric amplification, of course they did, just as they added tea and bannock and canned cranberry sauce. Those are now important parts of their culture.

And why not? Nobody who speaks the English language can get too uptight about purity and originality. We got nearly all our best words from other places.

And anyway, everything means for you what it does because of what you have experienced in connection with it and heard about it. And what it makes you think of. That’s what culture is about.

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